The White Sox Can’t Close the Deal

No lead is safe these days when a White Sox reliever enters the game. While Matt Thornton has taken the brunt of fan anger, his struggles now seem to have spread to the rest of the bullpen. The situation got crazier Wednesday when three relievers — including Thornton — blew a three-run lead in the final inning, leading Ozzie Guillen to tell the media that he didn’t have a closer. It’s too early to overreact, and Guillen is smarter than that*, but frustration is beginning to boil over with the Sox. 

Thornton entered the season as the newly-minted closer, but the shine quickly wore off. While the lefty has been his team’s best reliever the past few seasons (not to mention one of the best relievers in all of baseball), he’s struggled in his new role. No one wants to overreact to 4.2 innings pitched, but Thornton might need more time to refine his approach. Walks plagued him when he was with the Seattle Mariners, and those troubles have revisited Thornton so far this season. His velocity appears fine, which could mean that a bullpen session will fix these early struggles.

Chris Sale emerged as a potential candidate for saves this season as well, but he’s also experienced some problems. His issues, though, appear based more on luck rather than skill. Despite a strong strikeout to walk rate (9:1), Sale’s given up 11 hits in only 7.1 innings. So long as Sale doesn’t turn into a home-run machine, he should be fine.

Neither Jesse Crain, nor Sergio Santos, have pitched poorly this season, so perhaps they’re next in line for closing opportunities. Crain was part of the White Sox’s bullpen meltdown yesterday, which could mean that Santos might have a longer leash at the moment. Both players are capable of being successful closers, but the two lack the upside of either Thornton or Sale. It’s also Santos’ second season as a pitcher (in his career), so Guillen may be hesitant to install him in that role in the immediate future. With four options, none of which are all that appealing at the moment, what will Guillen do?

Despite his early troubles, Thornton has gotten consistent support from his manager. Guillen also likely realizes that Thornton is his best pitcher, and that he should be able to rebound rather quickly. For now, the frustration with the pen is at a high point and Guillen is likely to ride the hot hand. Could that include Tony Pena? Maybe, but it’s not likely. Once Thornton returns to form, he should return to the closer role.

If, however, one player emerges and Guillen names him the closer for the remainder of the season, not all is lost for Thornton. If we think a team’s best pitcher should be used during the most important moments of the game, then utilizing Thornton in that role is the optimal way for Ozzie to run his pen. Even though Bobby Jenks was the closer the past few seasons, Thornton was the Sox’s most reliable pitcher, and the guy Guillen brought in with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.

It’s too early for teams to panic and make dramatic changes with such small samples, but that won’t stop the White Sox. Their early bullpen issues have been so overblown this season that Guillen will play the match-up game until someone emerges. Thornton, though, is still the best option in the pen. Once he returns to form, the Sox could re-install him as the full-time closer. But it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure if Thornton doesn’t reclaim the job. He’s long been one of the best “secret closers**” in the game, and the White Sox have plenty of options.

*You can take my word for it, or you can call me an idiot in the comments.

**Copyright Carson Cistulli



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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hunterfan
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hunterfan
5 years 5 months ago

From watching the games, I think the White Sox should indeed make a 9th inning switch. Get a defensive replacement out there for Juan Pierre.

Dan
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Dan
5 years 5 months ago

Who? They sent down Milledge to bring Gray up (who hasn’t entered a game).

hunterfan
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hunterfan
5 years 5 months ago

Attempt at humor, not an actual suggestion, since two of the saves have been blown after Juan Pierre apparently develops an allergy to the ball.

Dan
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Dan
5 years 5 months ago

Yea, I got the humor, but it is true too… They don’t have a good outfield defensive replacement for late in a game. Being at the game against the Rays where he dropped a ball in the 9th, it is frustrating to watch.

King John II
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King John II
5 years 5 months ago

I speak for all White Sox fans when I say this:

“BRING BACK LINEBRINK.”

Yinka Double Dare
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Yinka Double Dare
5 years 5 months ago

I think you’re speaking for Twins and Tigers fans, White Sox fans would rather put out the fire rather than pour gasoline on it with Linebrink.

My echo and bunnymen
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My echo and bunnymen
5 years 5 months ago

David Bowie – Cat People

Sox27
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Sox27
5 years 5 months ago

The issue I’ve always had with Matt Thorton is he doesn’t have a whipe out pitch. He’s been EXTREMELY good since coming to the Sox, but I’ve always feared that eventually the 94-97mph fastball with no movement would be exploited by the league. It hasn’t happened to this point, so is it possible that it is beginning to take place? Again, the sample size is very small at this point in the season but it’s something I’m keeping an eye on. There has been some very poor defense at this point in the season which has contributed to the issues as well.

Piggybacking of some of the ideas in the piece, going into the season I felt the Sox would be wise to keep Thornton in his 7th/8th inning role. I always felt that was the best approach especially given the strong left-handed hitters within the division.

2nd Half Adjustments
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2nd Half Adjustments
5 years 5 months ago

His fastball *is* his wipeout pitch.

Sox27
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Sox27
5 years 5 months ago

What pitcher aside from Rivera can get away with having only 1 pitch? Thornton’s slider is not effective enough is the greater point.

Steve from Rockford
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Steve from Rockford
5 years 5 months ago

What are you talking about? He has one of the best fastballs in the league. His fastball isn’t the problem, its his slider that he has been having an issue with. Plus the defense has collapsed around him. I think he will be fine.

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 5 months ago

It has been very ugly, even going back to opening day when the ‘pen gave up 6 runs in 3 innings to make a blowout slightly interesting. As a Sox fan I keep telling myself that this si just small sample size and Thornton will regress to his baseline for the rest of the year but each time it happens it gets a little harder to believe that. The whole team right now is 1 for 7 in save situations. I know saves are often a useless stat but when the league average is something like 75% and you are at 14% it probably means something is wrong no matter how stupid the stat.

You are absolutely right about Guillen. Anybody who thinks he isn’t smart has formed that opinion from watching highlights of blowups on sportscenter. It is the equivalent of thinking that Griffey was great defensively ebcause all they ever showed were spectacular catches.

Slevin Kelevra
Member
Slevin Kelevra
5 years 5 months ago

Thornton is not a closer and he never will be

Terry
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Terry
5 years 5 months ago

Thanks for the great insight. Too bad he was 8 for 8 last year as one. The ninth inning has nothing to do with early problems.

Dandy Salderson
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Dandy Salderson
5 years 5 months ago

Can I paraphrase your comment?

TRAID MATT THORNTON!Z!!zzz!11

De Selby
Member
De Selby
5 years 5 months ago

“Neither Jesse Crain, nor Sergio Santos, have pitched poorly this season”

Crain, in 5 appearances, has pitched poorly twice, so-so once, and good twice. (yesterday he threw approximately 3 pitches (out of 13 thrown) in the strike zone. He walked Barton but Suzuki bailed him out by swinging at high fastballs and striking out.)
Santos on the other hand has been excellent.

Sully
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Sully
5 years 5 months ago

It seems like no one has brought up “luck” in this argument. Walks HAVE plagued Thornton, but his blown saves have been a combination of, yes walks, but errors and bloopers. I have only seen one hard hit ball off of Thornton, and that was Dan Johnson HR. Other than that it has been a combination of rinky dink hits, bloopers, and broken bat singles. All of which, are the same thing. Eventually he gets those for outs, and the game ends in a timely fashion.

Sully
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Sully
5 years 5 months ago

And Dan Johnson should have never come to the plate as it followed errors by both Ramirez and Pierre.

And yes I know talking “luck” is a touchy subject in the sabermetric community. But I do think, having watched these disastrous performances, Thornton is getting hosed.

JK
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JK
5 years 5 months ago

Always fun when some fluky things happen and half of a fan base gets to play armchair psychologist and tell us how Matt Thornton isn’t mentally tough enough to be a closer. This lack of mental toughness forced Alexei and Pierre to botch routine plays for outs 2 and 3 on Friday. This lack of mental toughness then made Pierre drop another flyout on Monday that would have left Thornton with 2 outs and a man on second instead of removed from the game. Then his mental toughness was exposed again yesterday when he allowed one looping single after a strikeout, which allowed a few of Chris Sale’s runners to score. Get “tougher” Matt, it will make your fielders catch the ball!

This probably has some sort of historical value too. When was the last time a guy managed to “blow” 3 saves in a home stand and literally not give up 1 single earned run?

Dandy Salderson
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Dandy Salderson
5 years 5 months ago

Kenny Powers – THAT is a guy who is a true closer.

jb
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jb
5 years 5 months ago

Sale has half the MLB innings as Santos. So the reasoning for not using Santos doesn’t apply to Sale? Do your homework. No, really! Do your homework.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 5 months ago

No one wants to overreact to 4.2 innings pitched, but Thornton might need more time to refine his approach. Walks plagued him when he was with the Seattle Mariners, and those troubles have revisited Thornton so far this season. His velocity appears fine, which could mean that a bullpen session will fix these early struggles.

Carson, this paragraph bothers me …

[1] We’re referring to 4.2 innings.
[2] We’re referring back to a walk problem from 2005?
[3] A bullpen session may fix it.

Small sample. 6 years ago. No, a bullpen session doesn’t fix “walks” … otherwise the league would be over-saturated with Bret Saberhagens.

I think some weird things have happened late in games against the ChiSox, and the whole deal is “no big deal”. Ozzie’s comments seem to be aimed as much at the defense. He seemed to be more angry that when things go wrong he’s the one answering questions, and when they go right the players are there front and center to receive the praise.

There are a lot of early season articles simply because it’s early in the season and something has to be written.

Thornton has 5 k/9 and 7 BB/9. Something about regression and SSS would seemingly fit here. I wouldn’t make any analysis based on any relievers’ 4.2 IP stretch. Any 4.2 IP stretch.

JR
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JR
5 years 5 months ago

Let it not be overlooked that Ozzie was absolutely horrible in his decision-making:

1. You have a closer who is struggling-you thus want the easiest possible save situation for him to get any lost confidence back. The gods favor you with a 3 run lead against a weak-hitting team with the wind blowing in.

2. You also have a young pitcher who closed at the end of last season,but you know he needs to be protected from overuse,given his age & questionable mechanics. He threw 35 pitches the night before.

Most any manager would have picked option 1. Instead Ozzie went with Sale,then proceeded to bring in Thornton with the bases loaded & 1 out,when any misstep at all would further erode his confidence. The result was unfortunate but well-deserved…just hoping we don’t hear the kid has a strained forearm or something-that would be the icing on the cake.

JK
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JK
5 years 5 months ago

Agree completely. Thornton is probably already trying to be too fine and throw the perfect pitch as a result of his defense killing him the two previous times out. So why not give him the rope of the 3 run lead? Instead, he is put into a position with absolutely no margin for error and one looping single results in him “blowing” the game (even though it was Sale’s doing).

striker
Guest
5 years 5 months ago

Bringing in Sale yesterday was a mistake by Guillen. He pitched 2 innings the day before. Loading the bases and bringing in Thornton with one out when Thornton was already struggling was just setting Thornton up for failure. Thornton has struggled but you bring him into the game first not Sale. If you say it’s his job then make him do his job and don’t make it harder for him to do his job.

The thing that stings more is not only did Thornton blow the save in 3 of those attempts but we lost the game too.

It’s Santos time.

Sophist
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Sophist
5 years 5 months ago

Here’s what I think might be behind bringing in Sale in that situation . . . if you are thinking of Sale as a closer, you have to know he is prepared to pitch in back-to-back games–prepared both mentally and physically. Don’t know if Ozzie was specifically setting up a test for him, but there’s certainly something-for Ozzie-to be learned about Sale in that situation.

But I agree: Santos is the guy.

mister_rob
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mister_rob
5 years 5 months ago

They are due for some “bad luck” in the bullpen.

any management team that can somehow get Cliff Politte and Neil Cotts to have dominating years at the same time and help lead them to a title definately had their share of “good luck”

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 5 months ago

Did you see 2007? That made up for any good bullpen they ever had.

I was at a game against the Tigers that year and they went to the ‘pen down maybe 6 – 4 in the 6th or 7th. I got up to leave and a Tigers fan asked me where I was going, he didn’t think the game was over.. I told him I had seen this show before and it would end about 11 – 6. Sure enough….

Sophist
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Sophist
5 years 5 months ago

That was the year of “power arms” . . . thing is, there’s a connection between that year and 2005. In ’05, those performances of Politte and Cotts were lightning in a bottle–and I don’t think it was planned that way. In ’07, Kenny seemed to be consciously trying to court that same feeling, with mostly young inexpensive power pitchers.

Fred
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Fred
5 years 5 months ago

Great offensive start and starting pitching destroyed by poor defense and the bullpen, at least the Twins are still doing terribly to this point or I’d be slightly concerned!

Scandler
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Scandler
5 years 5 months ago

Sooo…I’m a FG rookie, though I have Thornton in a fantasy league and have been cursing him AND Ozzie (I totally agree, JR–poor decision to bring in Sale, and THEN Matt into an impending disaster)

Anyway, I was checking out his “PitchFx”, and saw that in 2009 & 2010 he threw his fastball roughly 88%, and slider 10% of his pitches. This year, he’s still thrown his fastball exactly 88% of the time, though he’s used his slider only 3.4%, and a CHANGEUP 5.1% of the time (when in 2009/2010 he used this pitch a whopping 0%. It looks like it’s at 89mph, so what’s the deal? Is this just a lowsy fastball, or is he trying to add a 2-seamer or change that is just not working? I’d like to see the stats on the results of those actual pitches…maybe y’all can help me understand this…

Dan
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Dan
5 years 5 months ago

My opinion is that his slide wasn’t being effective and he already throws his fastball 88% so he is trying to use the change.

Sox27
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Sox27
5 years 5 months ago

While I’m still not a fan of Thornton in the 9th, look at the BABIP of Thornton and Sale, they are astronomically high right now. Those rates cannot be sustained, so things will improve.

Daniel Watkins
Guest
5 years 5 months ago

I would prefer the term “Covert Closer” for its alliterative charm.

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